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What does it mean when you own your masters?

Owning your masters in music, a crucial aspect in the music industry, means that you have control over the rights and royalties of a track. This includes the ability to grant permission for others to sample your track or use it in other ways. If you are an artist or musician, understanding the importance of owning your masters is vital to ensure you have control over the use and distribution of your music.

There are various ways to own your masters in music, such as setting up a publishing company to manage your publishing rights. It is important to understand the terms of any contracts or agreements you enter into to ensure you retain ownership of your masters, reflecting the importance of owning your masters.

Why Is Owning Your Masters So Important?

Owning your master recordings, a key aspect of full ownership in the music industry, is one of the most important things for any musician, yet it's a concept that is often misunderstood. This comprehensive guide from House of Tracks will break down everything you need to know about masters in music, why controlling your rights to their recordings is so crucial, and how it affects royalty payments for artists. We'll explore the nuances of master rights and provide insights into how musicians can ensure they have total control over their recorded music.

What Are Masters in Music?

The master recording, commonly referred to as just "the masters", is the original recording of a song. It's the raw, unedited version straight from the studio before any mixing or mastering has been done. Whoever owns the masters has full control over that recording.

For any released song, the master is the original source material. It's what gets sent to streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, pressed onto vinyl or CD, or licensed for films, TV, ads and video games. The master contains the actual performances by the musicians and the producer's work in capturing those performances.

Owning your masters means you have full control over your original recordings and can decide how they are reproduced and distributed.

There are several key reasons why owning your master recordings is critically important as a music artist:

Full Creative Control

When you own your masters, you have full control over your music and can decide how it's released. You don't need permission from anyone else to put out your songs through any distribution channel, make edits and remixes, or license your tracks.

Higher Royalty Rates

The owner of the master recording earns the lion's share of the royalties from streaming and music sales. When you own your own masters, you keep that money instead of the record label.

Long-Term Income Source

Masters can continue generating royalties for you indefinitely. Owning them means you have an asset that provides ongoing passive income from your catalogue as long as people keep listening.

Avoid Recoupment

With a traditional record deal, all earnings go back to the label first to repay your recording costs, tour support, videos, etc. This "recoupment" lasts until your debts are paid off. When you own your masters, you avoid this process.

Maintain Artistic Legacy

By keeping ownership of your master recordings, you have full control over how your work as an artist will be remembered, represented and reissued over your entire career.

How Musicians Typically Lose Ownership of Their Masters

Unfortunately, many musicians sign away their master recording rights when starting out:

  • Signing a record deal - Most standard recording contracts have the artist sign over ownership of any masters created during the term of the agreement. The label then owns those masters in perpetuity.

  • Working with a producer - Occasionally a producer may try to claim partial ownership of the masters by saying they contributed creatively. It's crucial to have a production agreement in place defining that the recordings belong fully to the artist.

  • Joint ventures - Sometimes when an investor funds an album they gain part ownership of the masters. It's better to structure these deals as a loan to be repaid rather than a stake in your intellectual property.

  • Work-for-hire - This is when a musician is paid a flat rate to record on someone else's project with no royalty stake. They have no claim over those masters.

  • Sampling - If you substantially sample another artist's recording, you may have to share ownership of the new master with them.

Can You Get Your Masters Back? How Taylor Swift Did It

Some artists who signed away their masters early on have later worked to reclaim ownership of their recordings. Taylor Swift recently gained control back over her first six albums after signing with Big Machine Records as a teenager:

  • Wait out the contract term - Most initial record deals have a limited contract period. Once that term is up, rights to the masters may revert back to the artist.

  • Renegotiate with the label - Some artists have been able to negotiate a return of their masters by offering the label new material in exchange or agreeing to a distribution deal.

  • Purchase them outright - Artists may buy back their masters from the record company by paying a large lump sum. Swift reportedly paid over $300 million for hers.

  • Re-record the songs - Since Swift still owns her composition rights, she has been legally able to recreate new masters of her early hits to her specifications.

Key Takeaways for Musicians Wanting to Own Their Masters

Here are some key lessons for new independent artists wanting to own and control their master recordings:

  • Retain ownership rights in any contracts with labels, producers, co-writers etc. Only license or assign rights for a limited time period and purposes.

  • Fund your recordings independently if possible through advances, pre-sales, investors, business loans. Avoid record label deals requiring transfer of ownership.

  • Work with collaborators who understand and respect your need to own your masters. Communicate this upfront.

  • Explore affordable ways to create quality recordings without big studios, such as home studios. That gives more control.

  • Even if you don’t own your past masters, look for opportunities to reclaim your rights or re-record old material.

  • Consult an entertainment lawyer to review any contract terms regarding masters, copyrights and royalties.

Owning your master recordings and having creative control over your music is extremely valuable for any musician, especially as streaming grows. While the process can be complex, taking the right steps early on can help secure your rights for the long term.

Check out House of Tracks for more tips on navigating the music business as an independent artist.

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